Why do we work on location?
Some jobs require presence at the job location for obvious reasons (food service, health care, performance arts, manual labor, etc). But other jobs are done in an specific place (an “office”) because it wasn’t until relatively recently that there was any (low-cost, fast) way to communicate other than in person. And any machinery necessary for getting an office job done (from the telegraph to the copy machine) wasn’t cheap enough or small enough or portable enough to be located anywhere other than in a single fixed location. The office did make sense at one point in time.
But times have changed, more significantly than anyone could ever have anticipated. Technology has dramatically changed the options available to employers and employees for supporting a mobile and global workforce. In vast swaths of the business world, the traditional office does not make sense anymore. Learn more about the ways technology can be used to improve workplace practices.
Why do so many offices have cubicles?
Did you know that the designers of the office cubicle intended to create a better space for workers? In 1968, the more common office design was an open bullpen layout, which workers often found loud and distracting, with limited personal space. That year, designers from the Herman Miller firm launched a new model with the intent of giving workers more privacy, room to work, and the flexibility to make quick and easy changes in desk height to adjust for different tasks: the Action Office was born.
But around the same time, a new middle management layer was emerging in the workforce. More employees and rising costs in real estate meant that employers were on the lookout for ways to cut costs. The tax law changed to stimulate business spending, so that companies could recover costs quickly on office furniture through shortened depreciation time-frames. Employers realized that the more Action Offices they could pack into a space, the more they could save. Design competitors took notice, and created smaller, cheaper versions, and it wasn’t long before the standard became what we are still stuck with today, the office cubicle.
Isn’t it worth considering whether office design should take into account long-term employee productivity, rather than stem from short-term economic gains that were already realized years ago?
Can thinking happen outside of an office?
No doubt, a lot of good ideas have come from the meetings and chats that take place at the office, and good work has been done behind an office desk. But is that the only place we are able to think? Surely our brains don’t stop functioning once we leave the confines of our office walls.
Is sitting at an office desk required for thinking? Can great ideas only come from impromptu conversations around the water cooler? Or is it possible to have a stroke of brilliance on a run, on the golf course, over drinks, or just right after a great night’s sleep?
It’s worth keeping in mind that some of the most influential ventures have come from unconventional places. To name a few:
- Isaac Newton developed his theory of gravity in a garden under apple trees
- Steve Jobs founded Apple in his parents’ garage
- The U.S Marine Corps was born in Tun Tavern, a brewery in Philadelphia
- The inventor of the credit card reader designed the font used for numbers printed on credit cards on a cocktail napkin at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel
- Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook from his dorm room
Is there a better way?
Why should we continue to follow outdated models of office design and work-on-location if there are other options?
Cheaper, smaller, faster technology has already changed the way we communicate, whatever space we’re in. Even when a group of people is physically present in the same space—whether in an office, a restaurant, a train station, or on the beach—they are using their phones, laptops, or other gadgets to multi-task and reach out to others. Companies often expect their staff to be available via mobile device at all hours. So why should employees ever be forced to stay within the confines of office walls, just for convention’s sake?
We have become so used to showing up at an office for no reason other than that’s the way it’s always been done, that we have lost sight of what being in the same space is good for. There’s no question that face-to-face, physical interaction is hugely effective in building relationships and trust. But in our cube-dominated office world, employees may spend hours without a single in-person interaction. And not all work requires communication. In fact, a lot of work requires privacy and quiet.
Wouldn’t it make more sense to give employees the freedom to perform quiet, private work in a place of their choosing? And reserve the on-location time for when it’s really useful? For some workers, that might mean only a few hours a week outside of the office. For others, it might mean weeks at a time out of the office. But the differences should be defined by the type of work getting done and the needs of each project.
Wouldn’t it make more sense to redesign the office with productivity in mind, as well as cost? To help maximize the time that employees are spending on location, shouldn’t we invest some thought into what design will help them get their work done best? For some teams, an open layout might encourage brainstorming sessions. Others might need privacy for confidentiality. Some might need a mixture of both.